Big Table expands hospitality worker outreach
Spokane-based nonprofit aims to grow presence to 10 cities by 2029
Karina EliasMarch 2nd, 2023
Spokane-based nonprofit Big Table has grown steadily and is opening a fourth location next month.
Launched in Spokane in 2009, Big Table was formed to assist workers in the hospitality and restaurant industry with struggles, including housing stability, medical and dental care, addiction, job readiness, mental and emotional health, and life coaching.
Last year, it provided direct assistance to over 1,200 workers, 751 of them in Spokane, says Matt Jensen, who was recently appointed director of strategic engagement for Big Table.
Jensen started in his new role in January after retiring from the Davenport Hotel Collection, in Spokane, where he was director of sales and marketing.
He says workers in the hospitality and restaurant industry are trained to smile and provide good service, without exposing any struggles behind their smiles.
“Being in the hotel industry for 34 years, (I) saw a lot of that behind the scenes through the different departments of housekeepers, banquets, restaurants,” he says. “You saw a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck.”
At Big Table, Jensen aims to partner with national companies such as PepsiCo Inc., and Coca-Cola Co., which have philanthropic foundations behind them and often support the hospitality industry.
Since 2011, Big Table has provided support to over 10,000 workers, says Jensen. Its annual budget for 2022 was $3.5 million, 83% of which went directly to care for workers.
Headquartered on the fourth floor of the Courtyard Office Center, at 827 W. First, in downtown Spokane, Big Table occupies 2,000 square feet of office space and has an administrative staff of six. On the first floor of the building, the nonprofit also has a separate office with a staff of seven care coordinators who engage, assist, and work alongside people needing care. Each care coordinator is responsible for about 20 industry workers.
Big Table’s locations in San Diego, and Nashville, Tennessee, each employ about five people, says Jensen. Its fourth location, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is nearly ready to open and has two employees.
The organization’s goal is to be in 10 cities by 2029, says Jensen.
The restaurant and hospitality industry is one of the largest industries in the country and has the largest percentage of people on the cusp of poverty, says Jensen, who also served on the board of Big Table during his time at the Davenport.
Kevin Finch is the founding director of Big Table as well as a former pastor for First Presbyterian Church, in Spokane, and food critic for several Inland Northwest publications. During his time as a pastor and writer, he became aware of the struggles faced by restaurant workers, he says.
Finch says he discovered that the hospitality and restaurant workforce has double the rate of poverty of any other industry, including the highest concentration of people struggling with addiction, high divorce rates, and broken relationships. According to data collected by Big Table, one in six restaurant workers live below the poverty line, double any other working profession. Over 40% make less than what some economists say is needed to make ends meet.
Finch says he decided to donate some of his earnings as a food critic to an organization that helps industry workers but was stunned that, out of the 1.5 million nonprofits registered with the IRS in 2006, he couldn’t find one with a focus on assisting workers in the hospitality and restaurant industry.
“The hospitality industry is doing such a good job of taking care of others that the rest of the community is clueless about how they are struggling,” he says.
Big Table assists people on a referral basis. In Spokane, it hosts a free meal for people in the industry each quarter at a large table that seats 48 people, including food servers, cooks, and restaurant owners and managers. Finch and his staff ask guests to refer someone they know who might need help with challenges in their lives.
The Spokane dinners have become popular within the industry, and Big Table has a waitlist of 400 volunteers who want to serve at these events, says Jensen. Most of the volunteers have been helped in some way by Big Table.
Big Table’s Spokane office takes in about 15 referrals a week.
Jensen says there’s a multiplier effect for each person helped. He notes that when families of the 1,200 people assisted are included, the number of people helped by Big Table in 2022 is estimated at over 3,700.
“So often more (problems) come out of just paying an electricity bill,” he says. “You find out so many things about them and are able to help them.”
Organizationwide, about 54% of the support that Big Table provided in 2022 was for housing stability, 22% was for mental and emotional health, 14% for job readiness, 9% for medical and dental care, and less than 1% for addiction recovery.
Big Table has several hundred community partners that provide in-kind donations in Spokane, such as Avista Corp., which provides grants for electricity; MultiCare Health Systems Inc., which provides dental care; and several auto body shops, dental offices, and other Inland Northwest businesses.